If I were to tell you a story about a man who was a professional table tennis player but gave it all up and moved to a remote Scottish island to become a rabbit farmer; who was then inspired to start running by watching TV, battled cancer and became one of the world’s most successful ultramarathon runners – would you think I was making it up?
It may sound far-fetched, but it’s all true.
William Sichel’s first love was table tennis. Training in China and Japan and then playing semi-professionally in Holland, it might have seemed that his career path was mapped out.
But now at the age of 65 he has lived on the island of Sanday in Orkney for the past 37 years.
‘When I gave up table tennis at the age of 27 I had to work out fairly quickly what I was going to do with my life,’ says William. ‘I tried to think back to a time when I was really happy and realised that it was in my childhood. I was brought up in a small village called Welford in Warwickshire and it was a very happy, very rural environment. We would milk cows and roll the fleeces on the village green. I really loved rural life.’
William had researched crofting on Orkney and had decided that this would be a good move when he had a chance encounter in Kent with the lady who would later become his wife.
Elizabeth had just bought a ruined building on the Orcadian island of Sanday and implored William to visit.
He did, and never looked back. It took William and Elizabeth a year to make the house habitable and he describes it as a ‘labour of love’. There was very little to work with. The house had been abandoned in 1939 and was little more than a pile of stones in a field.
‘I was young and I wanted to work hard,’ says William. The couple couldn’t afford to employ builders so they did the work themselves. ‘We couldn’t afford a normal roof so for the first winter we had an iron roof and the noise was absolutely horrendous. We had proper winters in those days and the hailstones were deafening. So I just laid a plastic sheet over the iron and got my spade out and dug the turf off the nearest field and walked up and down the ladder all day and laid out a lovely carpet of turf all over the roof.
‘A lot of people shook their heads and said, “that’s never going to work, it’s going to get blown off”. But believe it or not that roof didn’t need anything done to it for 25 years and the idea was so good that as we extended the house I extended the turf roof. It is now 108ft long.’
Read the full story in the May edition of Scottish Field.